Underdogs? Not so fast: Reliving the Bulls' dominance over the Raptors

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Underdogs? Not so fast: Reliving the Bulls' dominance over the Raptors

Here’s something you’re going to hear quite a bit this season: the Bulls are underdogs tomorrow night. The official start to the rebuild begins as the Bulls travel to Toronto to face the Raptors tomorrow night on NBC Sports Chicago. Pregame Live begins at 6 p.m. with Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill.

The Raptors bring back Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and a host of other talent that helped Toronto earn the No. 3 seed in the East last year. They’ll be there this season, so the Bulls open the season with a daunting opponent. But fear not! The Bulls are underdogs, but there’s no opponent they’ve had more success against the last four seasons than the Raptors. The Bulls have won 11 of their last 12 games against Toronto, including 11 straight victories before last season’s late loss in Toronto.

Take a trip down memory lane and see how they did it, and then check back tomorrow night and see if they can get back to their winning ways against Dwane Casey’s group.

1. Feb. 19, 2014 (94-92)

The streak of 11 straight wins begins with an almost-awful collapse. The Bulls lead by as many as nine in the fourth quarter before a frantic comeback from Lowry and DeRozan, who combined for 14 points in a 4-minute span to pull within two points late. But DeRozan can’t close the deal, missing two shots in the final 3 seconds, securing a Bulls win.

2. Nov. 13, 2014 (100-93)

A back-and-forth first half includes five ties and nine lead changes. Then the Bulls decide in the third quarter they don’t care much for see-saws and take over. They close the quarter on a 17-5 run and lead by double-digits until late in the fourth quarter. The Raptors pull within five in the final minute but five Bulls free throws ice the game. Pau Gasol (27), Jimmy Butler (21) and Derrick Rose (20) combine for 68 points.

3. Dec. 22, 2014 (129-120)

Let’s just cut right to the fourth quarter. That’s when the Bulls erupt for a franchise-record 49 points to take the come-from-behind win. Ironically they miss their first three shots of the period. After that? Tom Thibodeau’s group goes 14-for-17 and also makes 16 free throws. Derrick Rose goes 6-for-6 for 15 points in the stanza. Who said Thibs’ offenses don’t score?

4. Mar. 20, 2015 (108-92)

The two teams enter this late-season matchup just one-half game separating them. But the Bulls make a statement, taking the lead late in the first quarter and holding it the rest of the way. Rookie Nikola Mirotic continues to put a bow on his remarkable month of March, scoring 29 points on 11-for-21 shooting and grabbing 11 rebounds. He even blocks a career-high four shots in the win.

5. Mar. 25, 2015 (116-103)

The Bulls continued pulling away in the East standings less than a week later. Mirotic is solid off the bench, scoring 15 points, but it’s reserve Tony Snell who makes the most noise. He erupts for 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting in just 18 minutes, including nine points in a fourth quarter that sees the Bulls outscore the Raptors 39-21 to secure the win.

6. Dec. 28, 2015 (104-97)

The Bulls’ bench continues to star against the Raptors. This time Snell, Bobby Portis and Aaron Brooks combine for 51 of the Bulls’ 104 points. The five starters score 53 points. The trio of Snell/Portis/Brooks shoots 20 for-37 from the field, outscoring the Raptors’ reserves, 51-27.

7. Jan. 3, 2016 (115-113)

Jimmy Butler struggles in the first half, scoring just two points. But the second half is a different story, to say the very, very, very least. Butler scores a franchise-record 40 points after halftime, leading the Bulls all the way back after they trailed by as many as 14 midway through the third quarter. When you play for the Bulls and accomplish a scoring feat that Michael Jordan never did, that’s says something.

8. Feb. 19, 2016 (116-106)

Doug McDermott can't match Butler’s heroics, but he puts together a career night nonetheless. The sharpshooter goes off for 30 points, making 13 of 17 from the field in 31 minutes. Fourteen of those points came in the fourth quarter, his last coming on a 3-pointer after the Raptors had cut the deficit to just three.

9. Mar. 14, 2016 (109-107)

Dwane Casey begins having nightmares of Doug McDermott (probably). That’s because the Creighton legend goes off once again, scoring 29 points on 9-for-11 shooting and somehow getting to the free throw line eight times. The Bulls nearly collapse (just like their first win in the streak), but DeMar DeRozan is blocked by Jimmy Butler in the closing seconds (just like their first loss of the streak).

10. Jan. 7, 2017 (123-118)

Jimmy Butler lives at the free throw line in the only overtime game of the streak. The Bulls, like plenty of these games, make a wild comeback in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Ratpors 33-21 to force the extra period. Butler plays hero with seven points in overtime, and Jerian Grant ices the game with a pair of free throws.

11. Feb. 14, 2017 (104-95)

The Raptors do not ask Doug McDermott to be their valentine. That’s because he once again goes off, scoring a team-high 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting. Jimmy Butler adds 19 (with 15 coming on free throws) and adds 12 assists and five steals in the wire-to-wire victory.

Dwyane Wade's strong words last season were necessary for young Bulls, who hold no hard feelings

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Dwyane Wade's strong words last season were necessary for young Bulls, who hold no hard feelings

A frustrated Dwyane Wade had seen enough after a regular season loss to Atlanta in January and questioned his team’s commitment to winning, jumpstarting a few uncomfortable days on Madison Street.

Feelings were hurt after Wade and Jimmy Butler went scorched earth, followed by Rajon Rondo’s Instagram post questioning their leadership in return.

It seems like so long ago considering the direction the Bulls have gone since, but the players insist there’s no hard feelings toward Wade, as the Bulls will see Wade in a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey tomorrow night in Cleveland for the first time since his buyout two weeks ago.

“We never had any conflict with Dwyane. Just after that game, they had some tough declaration, Jimmy and D-Wade,” said Nikola Mirotic, a player who one could argue was a target of Wade’s ire that night. “But that was all. It’s a part of the game. They were hot. There was disappointment about the game.”

The players were fined by the Bulls for making their feelings public, but it pulled behind a necessary curtain and revealed some warts the franchise tried to conceal—even though it was clear for all the observers to see Wade and Butler’s urgency didn’t mesh as well with an underdeveloped and inexperienced group, along with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg trying to corral differing factions.

“It forced everyone to get in a room and be honest with each other,” Hoiberg said. “Really, it got us in my opinion playing better. It happened, it got us in that room for a long session, we hashed a lot of things out, and we were better because of it.”

Hoiberg’s leadership was questioned for the second time in two seasons as head coach, especially having to coach a player in Wade who still desperately wanted to be in a contending situation.

It took a while, especially after the Bulls traded veteran Taj Gibson to Oklahoma City in what amounted to a salary dump, but they rebounded and could have advanced to the second round if not for Rondo’s wrist injury in Boston.

But then again, the Bulls made their decision to change direction after the season so perhaps the fireworks were more for entertainment than true long-term effect.

“Sometimes those things have to happen,” Hoiberg said. “I talked to a couple of coaches about it that said, at least your guys are in there talking about it. Our guys won't say anything to each other. Maybe it needed to happen, and again, I thought we were better because of it and finished the season playing our best basketball of the year.”

Wade, up until 24 hours before media day, was still a member of the Bulls and whatever feelings from that evening in January had long dissipated. After he and the Bulls reached an agreement on a buyout, he sent young players like Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis text messages of encouragement.

Portis chalked the incident up to things that happen during the course of a basketball season.

“I don’t feel like we had a problem with him,” Portis said. “We just had a little mishap during the season last year. I feel like all the teams have a little trouble during the season, but ours was boosted a little more. But we don’t have any problems with him.

“He was a great leader for us. He came in every day, came into work. When I came in at nighttime, I’d see him here at nighttime, he and Jimmy, so I feel like he was a great leader. He showed us hard work and things like that, especially in the playoffs. He even revved it up even more, and when our team gets back to playoff mode that’s something I will take from him and it will help some of the other guys.”

Five Things to Watch: Bulls open preseason play against Pelicans

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Five Things to Watch: Bulls open preseason play against Pelicans

1. All the new faces: The Bulls have 12 players in training camp who were not on the team a year ago. The headliners are there in Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Nikola Mirotic, but with what should be one of the youngest rosters in the league there are plenty of roster spots up for grabs. Former five-star recruit Diamond Stone, Summer League standout Antonio Blakeney and athletic combo guard David Nwaba are a few names to watch as preseason begins and decisions are made.

2. The return on Jimmy: The Bulls’ rebuild will be clearer after next year’s draft, but fans will always go back to the one trade that sent them into this phase. Trading a top-15 talent in Jimmy Butler must yield a return, and though Zach LaVine won’t play until the leaves change colors the progress of Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen will loom large. Dunn has a pretty clear path to the starting point guard position, while Markkanen could fight for minutes in a sixth man role behind newly paid Nikola Mirotic.

3. Big payday for Big Cris: The Bulls’ first move in free agency this summer was handing Cris Felicio a four-year, $32 million deal.  He’s just 25 years old and has shown steady improvement in each of his first two seasons. At the very least he’s a formidable backup moving forward in the rebuild. But if the Bulls move on from Robin Lopez (potentially sooner than later) it would thrust Felicio into a starting role. If he continues to progress he could be the center of the future. How he fits into Fred Hoiberg’s style is another question, but the Bulls continue to like what they see from him.

4. Feel-good story in Quincy Pondexter: The Bulls traded for Pondexter earlier this month, and it’s going to be difficult not to root for this guy. Multiple knee surgeries cost Pondexter each of the last two seasons. He now appears to be healthy and should see game action in the preseason. When healthy he was a formidable wing, averaging 5.3 points on 42 percent shooting and 2.0 rebounds in 279 career games for New Orleans and Memphis. He’s not going to make fans forget about Jimmy Butler, but it would be a great story if he can make the team and, more importantly, stay healthy.

5. Welcome back, Rajon! The Bulls are going to see more than a few old faces from last year’s team, and they’ll get one on Opening (preseason) Night. After the Bulls bought him out over the summer, Rajon Rondo signed a one-year, $3.3 million deal with the Pelicans. Rondo was a superb teammate and excellent mentor to some of the young Bulls he’ll face on Tuesday, so it’ll be fun to watch him interact with some of those players, including Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine and Cris Felicio.